Social media is a one-way window to see into people’s shiny, happy lives. We know it’s a construct – Instagram reality isn’t real reality – but that doesn’t mean we’re unaffected by what we perceive to be perfection.
Experts are saying that the self-bragging photos people post on social media encourage voyeurs to feel negative about their own lives and their bodies. If you think about it, it makes sense that social media could be affecting body image more than most other forms of media these days. We’re smart enough to look at a magazine and think ‘Photoshop’, or see an ad campaign and think ‘supermodel’. But with social media, it’s different: these are ‘real people’ sharing their ‘real lives’.
Social media is that one pervasive, ever-present entity. It’s inescapable, and we choose what we want to see. It makes you question, ‘Why don’t I look like that? Why aren’t I living that life?’ Medical and nutritional experts are saying that social media is acting as more than just a catalyst for envy: Facebook, Instagram and other sites of its kind may be worsening the struggles of people suffering from eating disorders.
Dr Constance Quinn, site director of the Renfrew Center (an institute for the treatment of eating disorders) in New York, said in a summit on current body image issues, ‘The internet and social media have brought us amazing things, the downside, specifically related to the clients – with Facebook and Instagram in particular – is it floods us with images that are often very unrealistic.’
Think of trends like the ‘thigh gap’ – that could affect even someone with excellent self-esteem. Self-comparison is an inescapable component of social media – it’s impossible not to compare your life to the lives of the people you religiously follow. It leads to negative self-talk, which leads to negative self-image – something that’s closely linked to the severity of eating disorders.
A 2013 University of Michigan study found that the more time people spent on Facebook, the worse they felt about their lives in general, while a University of Haifa study concluded that the more time teenage girls spent on Facebook, the more they suffered from conditions like anorexia and bulimia, physical dissatisfaction and the urge to be on a weight-loss diet.
Related: My Nine-Year Battle with Anorexia
Quinn also pointed out, ‘we’re obsessed with this idea of putting our best selves’ on social media. Every pose is calculated; every filter is painstakingly selected to bring out the most pleasing reality. Of course, it was never suggested that social media is to blame for eating disorders – but they do fuel body negativity, and that’s a fact. Save from quitting social media entirely, there’s really nothing to do to escape seeing people’s ‘perfect’ lives. Hopefully we’ll realise just how poor a surrogate social media is for real social interaction, and refrain from it a bit more – but that’s easier said than done. Or maybe, instead of feeling envious of that girl in high school posting videos of one exotic beach holiday after another, we should be using her as inspiration.